Journalist | Writer | Analyst
11 November 2008
Rising power, insecure elite
For all our pretensions to being a big power, two recent events have demonstrated the corrosive effect America’s strategic embrace is having on India’s self-confidence.
Now that it is clear the next occupant of the White House will be a Democrat and not a Republican, India’s strategic elite has worked itself into a frenzy of nervousness about what the changeover will mean for the future of Indo-U.S. relations.
Analysts who till yesterday were the biggest supporters of India’s strategic embrace with the U.S. now worry about American interventionism in areas as diverse as Kashmir and climate change and have begun decrying the “arrogance” of the U.S. Until the middle of October, the Indian elite took great comfort from the thinly-veiled threats of military action Senator Barack Obama held out against Pakistan if it failed to cooperate fully with the U.S. war in Afghanistan. But now that it seems President-elect Obama might also try and offer Islamabad the carrot of greater activism on Kashmir, Indians have begun worrying about whether the “de-hypenisation” policy of the Bush administration is on its way out.
Ten years ago, such fears might be understandable. Today, they betray an insecure mindset totally out of sync with the reality of how the U.S., the world and India’s position with it have all been transformed over the past decade. Above all, it betrays the insecurity of an elite that has big power ambitions but is totally lacking in the kind of confidence needed to play the global game.
The second incident that shows India’s lingering small-power mentality is the reaction of the Mamohan Singh government to last month’s illegal and provocative cross-border raid into Syria by U.S. Special Forces in which at least eight civilians were killed. The Bush administration justified its aggression against Syria by claiming it had the right to attack targets in third countries that were involved in the Iraqi insurgency.
The incident happened on October 26 and was strongly condemned by Baghdad, whose official spokesman noted that the country’s constitution “does not allow Iraq to be used as a staging ground to attack neighboring countries”. Russia and France also swiftly condemned the U.S. raid in strong terms and even China, which tends to respond pragmatically to the American use of military force as long as it does not directly affect Chinese interests, said it “oppose[d] any deed that harms other countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
The Indian reaction came a week after the incident, on November 3 and was so mild as to be irrelevant and even unhelpful. “India is concerned at the incident near Abu Kamal, 8 kilometres inside Syria on its border with Iraq”, the Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement. “The scourge of terrorism affects many nations across the world. While this must elicit decisive responses, when such actions result in the death of innocent civilians, they defeat the very objective of the intervention”.
Far from condemning the illegal use of force by the U.S. and the violation of Syrian sovereignty, India, in this astonishing statement, actually justified the U.S. intervention by saying the scourge of terrorism “must elicit decisive responses”. The only caveat introduced was that civilians should not be killed. Incidentally, New Delhi played host to the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, barely four months ago.
What makes this Indian reaction even more timorous is that the MEA issued it not as a standalone statement but in “response to a question”, a standard expedient that every beat reporter knows the ministry resorts to whenever it feels compelled to say something negative but would rather not offend powerful countries like the U.S.
One could dismiss the MEA statement as inconsequential except that it betrays not just lack of confidence in standing up for well-recognised norms of civilized international behaviour but also a lack of understanding of how the use of force by the U.S. could destabilize the wider West Asian region in which India has a vital stake. After all, if the American military occupation is to end and Iraq is to emerge as a sovereign, stable nation again, the cooperation of neighbours like Syria, Iran and Turkey is vital. India may not have a direct stake in Iraq any more but it will surely be adversely affected by any spillover of U.S. military action to either the west or the east of that country. And yet, it chose to remain silent about the October 26 provocation for fear of rubbing its strategic partner the wrong way.
This is, at one level, an extraordinary pathology. The U.S. came forward to embrace India and even offer it cooperation in the field of civil nuclear energy because it recognized New Delhi’s growing capacity to affect strategic developments in Asia and the world. But far from recognizing its own strength and its ability to make a difference by being more assertive on a wide variety of arenas, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Government have taken the Bush administration’s embrace as an act of benevolence which needs to be repaid by active support, where politically feasible, and ambivalence or silence, when openly backing Washington might prove a hard sell domestically.
It is precisely because of this pathology that the Indian elite now finds itself discomfited by what Mr. Obama might do once he takes charge on January 20, 2009. Even something so foolish as why the President-elect has phoned military allies of the U.S. like Gordon Brown of Britain and Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan and not our own Prime Minister is occasioning nervousness in the media. India should not aspire to become a strategic rival of the U.S. as Russia and China may be. But nor should it ever want to become a military ally of the United States. Maintaining the proper distance in proximity is the challenge facing Indian diplomacy in its relations with the U.S. and so far, unfortunately, our system has not been very successful in figuring out how to do this. That is why we have been unsuccessful in crafting a forward-looking Indian response to the questions of Iran, Afghanistan, Syria and the wider Middle East peace process, even though the West Asian region is one of the most important parts of the world for India in economic and strategic terms and U.S. policies there are proving singularly unhelpful.
Turning to South Asia, nowhere is our lack of confidence so evident than in the collective breast-beating on display the past week on the issue of U.S. interventionism in Kashmir. Even assuming Mr. Obama intends fully to act on the mediation trial balloon he floated in his interview to Time magazine last month, the U.S. cannot hurt or compromise Indian interests in the region without seriously undermining its own interests. Like the nuclear deal and the March 2005 offer to ‘help’ make India a world power, the ‘de-hyphenation’ in American relations with India and Pakistan that has occurred over the past five years was not an act of charity. Rather, objective developments in the region had robbed Washington of its capacity to hurt India in Kashmir by raising the opportunity cost of such a policy. Eight years ago, a Robin Raphel could question the legality of the state’s accession to India. But nobody in the forthcoming Obama administration could do that or float a mediation effort without squandering the accumulated strategic gains the U.S. has made in New Delhi since 2003.
Rather than panicking about what the U.S. might or might not do, perhaps it is time for India to dehyphenate its relations with Washington and Islamabad and not look to an Obama administration to take the initiative as far as effecting a course correction in Pakistan is concerned. In the first two years of his government, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh showed extraordinary statesmanship in the way in which he engaged Pakistan on the question of Kashmir. If the peace process got stuck along the way, internal developments in Pakistan were as much to blame as India’s unwillingness to follow through till the end. What Dr. Singh could do even now is kick-start the process of building confidence with the civilian government in Pakistan by making his long-overdue visit to Islamabad. And he should not go there empty-handed. The Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline could be one project he could openly declare his support for. And if the Indian security establishment still needs time to be convinced about the need for a Siachen settlement, let the Prime Minister take with him innovative solutions to the problem which – much more than Kashmir — lies at the core of the Pakistani establishment’s concerns and fears: water.
Either way, the time is ripe for the rising power to come to terms with its own region. Not out of fear for what President-elect Obama might do. But because that is the right thing for India to do.